Digital photography has many advantages over traditional film, but unfortunately, security isn’t really one of them.
Unlike prints or negatives, digital images can be lost forever in a catastrophic hard drive failure, or even accidentally deleted with a click of the mouse. Even if you use backup software (opens in new tab), there is always the chance of that failing.
The hard and fast rule of backups is to have three different storage types: two should be stored on-site, and could include an external hard drive as well as storage media in the form of USB sticks or CD/DVD/Blue Ray discs; and the other backup option should be kept offsite, such as a cloud storage (opens in new tab) account.
Here then are a few ways you can make sure those digital memories can be properly preserved, backed-up, and otherwise made safe from loss.
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1. Use recordable media
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Recordable media such as SD cards (opens in new tab), CDs, and DVDs can all be a great way to backup your photos, but a complication here is that if you're not careful you could end up with a large collection that is difficult to organize.
This can be especially the case when dealing with SD cards from multiple cameras, or a growing pile of recorded CDs and even DVDs. This not only means things becoming potentially mixed up, but also lost or damaged.
Therefore while saving to media is fine as a short-term solution, it may not make for a long-term one when it comes to management and organization.
2. Use an external drive
Most people might immediately think of a standalone SATA harddrive, connected up via USB to your computer, which you can then copy and write files to. While that's a perfectly fine way to run a set of backups, the caveat is that hard drives can fail (opens in new tab).
Solid State Drives (SSDs) (opens in new tab) are more stable, but tend to cost more, and while reliability may seem like an initial plus it does mean you will have to find space for the drive and connecting wires on your computer workspace.
That may not seem like a big problem, but it would seem more ideal to reduce clutter so that backups won't get in your way. Additionally, you might not want to use up your limited number of USB ports with an "always on" external hard drive connection.
In that regard, a USB flash drive (opens in new tab) will probably be the simpler solution, as not only does it not require leads connecting up to your PC, but they can be easily stored away until needed, and taken with you to other locations as required. Better still, USB flash drives tend to be relatively cheap while offering a large storage space.
In which case, saving to a single master USB stick can work well as a backup option for photos in general. However, the more devices and photos you have, the more difficult this can be to put in place.
Even still, the one advantage external hard drives have over recordable media is the bigger and cheaper storage space, with external hard drives now commonly offering over 1TB of storage or more.
3. Use multiple software libraries
The best offense for any potential disaster is a good defense, and while it's advised to use multiple hardware options to backup and store your photos, there are also different software options you can use.
Apple used to offer Aperture to help organize photos, but there are alternatives available such as iPhoto Library Manager (opens in new tab), and the same trick works in iPhoto as well.
The concept is simple: Move older, unused, and duplicate images to a separate library stored on an external drive, preferably one that doesn’t see daily use.
This tip works best when libraries are stored on some kind of redundant storage like a Drobo or network-attached storage (NAS) (opens in new tab), or in conjunction with the advice offered in our next method, which also has the benefit of freeing up precious internal space on modern flash storage drives.
4. Save photos to the cloud
If you happen to be a person who isn’t very proactive about keeping a good backup of digital photos, syncing them to the cloud is a great way to “set it and forget it.” There are an endless variety of services with Mac desktop clients, and many of them offer generous amounts of free or cheap storage as well.
Some of the more popular options cloud storage options include Dropbox (opens in new tab), Google Drive (opens in new tab), Microsoft OneDrive (opens in new tab), and others, including many offer mobile apps that can be configured to automatically back up the Camera Roll of iOS and Android devices.
The same services also work with libraries from desktop applications like iPhoto, Aperture, or Adobe Lightroom, although you’ll want to make sure to save these files in a folder on internal or external storage that’s set up to sync from desktop to cloud for faster local access, rather than a network-based drive dependent upon internet access; Bitcasa offers such an option, and other cloud services can do the same using software like ExpanDrive.
Checkout our list of the best cloud photo storage services.
5. Use free cloud photo services
Speaking of the cloud, mobile shutterbugs are increasingly embracing the convenience of carrying entire photo collections in their pockets using dedicated cloud photo services.
Picturelife, Adobe Creative Cloud, and ThisLife make it easy to back up photos from any mobile or desktop device, providing an additional layer of security plus the tools necessary to organize and edit photos from anywhere, no matter which device or web browser you happen to be on at the time.
However, there are plenty of free cloud photo storage options available, which can be especially useful as a second backup to follow premium cloud accounts:
Amazon Prime (opens in new tab) customers receive a number of benefits, not least free delivery, Prime Video, Prime Music, and book borrowing from the Kindle Prime Library. However, one understated benefit of Amazon Prime membership is the ability to store an unlimited number of photos on your account. Uploading is easy, and once done, so long as you remain an Amazon Prime customer, your photos will remain online and private with your account.
Google Photos (opens in new tab) is another free option for putting your photos in the cloud for free, and without limit. The only caveat is that Google will convert high resolution images into a slightly lower resolution. If that sounds drastic then don't worry, as for ordinary photos you're really not going to notice the difference. You can organize photos into albums, and a neat timeline feature means you can scroll through them by date.
Facebook (opens in new tab) is another online service where you can upload your photos for free, without any apparent limitations. As with other services, you can set them up into albums, which is handy as otherwise, Facebook will simply display the most recently uploaded in your photo tab. As with your Facebook posts, you can set sharing permissions, so that your photos are visible only to you, only to named friends and family, or else public for anyone to see.
Need more options? We've featured the best free cloud storage.
6. Print them out (just in case)
Unless your hobby is scrapbooking or you grew up in the Fotomat generation (kids, ask your parents), printing out thousands of digital photos might seem like a waste of money, time, and trees. Just because we’re so enamored with paperless photos now, the time may come when having a closet full of prints might be preferred or even come in handy. At the very least, they’re a decent hard copy that can be used to scan back into the computer, should the worst-case scenario transpire and your digital memories get wiped out.
Thankfully, prints are reasonably inexpensive these days. Services like Shutterfly offer unlimited photo storage from desktop or mobile devices (and that counts as another backup, score!), and are quite aggressive with weekly deals to make prints, custom books, and other photo-based products on the cheap. And don’t forget your local drugstore — Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS, and others offer similar services with the convenience of being able to pick them up in-store and save a bundle on shipping.
We've provided a list of what we think are the best photo printers.
7. Backup, rinse, repeat
Last but not least, we can’t stress enough the importance of backing up your digital photos (and while we’re at it, videos, too). Many consumers don’t even bother printing their photos anymore since they can easily carry entire collections on a smartphone (opens in new tab) or tablet (opens in new tab). These files are effectively your “negatives,” and should be treated as such — even if that means offloading a copy onto some form of storage media and shoving it in a shoebox, similar to what generations past did with the real thing.
Of course, keeping two copies of your digital photos in the same location isn’t necessarily a good idea, either. A fire, flood, or other natural disaster could wipe out everything you own in a heartbeat, which is where offline storage comes into play. Services like CrashPlan (opens in new tab), Carbonite (opens in new tab), or LiveDrive (opens in new tab) can securely back up entire desktop systems (including the digital photos stored there) for pennies per day without user interaction.
Now would also be a great time to invest in a new high-capacity USB 3.0 external hard drive (they’re quite cheap these days), and flip on Time Machine, the built-in backup software that comes standard with OS X. Many inexpensive NAS devices also support Time Machine, and products from Synology, ASUSTOR, and others can even access files remotely via mobile apps. Just be sure to make a backup of your backup every few years in case the original drive decides to meet its maker!
Need help choosing? We've featured the best free backup software.